Sometimes it is hard to tell people that I really don’t care for anything with the Rodgers and Hammerstein seal of approval. I see their eyes light up and reminisce about how innocent, colorful and quaint those films are and I hold my tongue and nod. Who am I to stomp on beautiful memories? But I have finally found common ground, The King and I brought real smiles to my face and never once let my eyes roll.
The film is a musical tale about a widowed mother, Anna (Deborah Kerr), who has traveled to Siam with her son to be a teacher to the King’s children. Right away there’s the anxiety that comes with being so far from home and culture clash around every corner. When Anna first sees the King (Yul Brynner), he is being presented a young woman, Tuptim (Rita Moreno), as a gift. Later we learn that Tuptim is still in love with a young man and they hope to escape. Anna meets about half of the Kings children and wives and starts to build a loving relationship as their teacher. But as the children learn, they bring new questions to their father, who doesn’t know how to answer them. He becomes more curious and wants to learn as well, but is so deeply rooted in his old traditions and the culture he is the center of.
When the King is informed that people say he is a barbarian, he feels the need more than ever to learn Western culture. Visitors are coming from England and the King plans on hosting a banquet to prove that he is very civilized. All the wives wear European style dresses, dinner is served with forks and Tuptim translates Uncle Tom’s Cabin into a Siamese ballet.
The story about Tuptim mirrors that of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the King has a hard time realizing that he is the villain in that sense. It becomes a culture shock revelation that the King can’t handle.
There are some hilarious scenes all through this film. The King is always full of laughs and his little misunderstandings can leave Anna lost for words. When they’re discussing the Civil War going on in America, the King wants to send elephants to “Mr. Lingcong” as aid. The rule that no one’s head can be higher than the Kings spurs an odd game at times. And there’s also an absolutely side-splitting moment when the wives first meet the British Ambassador in their new dresses.
The number one reason I enjoyed this film is the wonderful performance by Yul Brynner. He’s so wonderfully odd and animated, yet royal and distinguished. The way he conflicts between his kingly power trips and his natural curiosity is fun and engaging. Somehow it’s naturally part of his personality how he always seems to be posing (hands on hips or sternly crossed over his chest and feet always shoulder width apart) and his face is always full of expression, if he had hair it would be too much. I didn’t care too much for his singing, but that hardly seems to matter in this performance. And to completely rock a new open shirt and hammer-pants in every scene takes some serious presence and Brynner brings it spectacularly.
It is absolutely brilliant to put the themes of such culture into a musical that can be loved by all ages. There are scenes light and simple enough for children to understand and yet adults can realize how deep these themes can go.
It’s nice to know I can finally breathe easy when someone pulls the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s card in a conversation.
“I make mistake, the British not scientific enough to know how to use chopsticks.”